The “back to basics” movement has been one of the most consistent cycles in popular music. The ‘70s spawned punk as a backlash against such massive, stadium-filling bands like Led Zeppelin and The Eagles. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw the rise of both grunge and the “Unplugged” movement as an answer to the cartoonish excesses of the MTV era. And to a lesser extent commercially (but not influentially), the late ‘90s saw the emergence of such No Depression-era favorites like Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo, and Lucinda Williams.
The late ‘90s version response to this “back to basics” movement resulted in a blurring of musical styles. Bluegrass wasn’t entirely accurate. Neither was “roots rock”. People finally had to settle for alt-country as a description, but even that term was no more effective than a term like “alternative” trying to describe both Nirvana and Morphine. Whatever the term, the inspiration behind the movement seemed to be a desire to revisit the ancestry of modern music. Before the Beatles. Before Elvis. Before Chuck Berry.
In 2000, after the techo-scare of Y2K became a blip on the pop culture radar, the Coen brothers released the Odyssey-inspired O Brother, Where Art Thou?.To this date, O Brother may not rank in the upper tier of Coen brother favorites, but its inspiration of early Americana music gave birth to one of the most unlikely soundtrack successes in rock. It sold more than seven million copies (an amazing feat given how little airplay it received) and proved the spoiler to the assumed Grammy Album of the Year showdown between Outkast’s Stankonia and Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft.
The financial success of the O Brother soundtrack would be an impressive enough feat, given how rare even a double-platinum album is nowadays. But the soundtrack deserves to be on the shortlist of “Best Soundtracks of All Time” because of how it both perfectly encapsulated its celluloid form, and was a near-perfect primer for an art form. Through the soundtrack, millions were introduced to pioneering legends Ralph Stanley and the Carter Family as well as new keepers of the bluegrass flame Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. Strangely enough, the last soundtrack to accomplish such a feat would probably be the very un-bluegrassy Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, an album that even the most ardent of disco haters grudgingly respect.
O Brother leads off with a 1959 Alan Lomax recording of James Carter, then a prisoner at Mississippi State penitentiary. Carter was singing “Po’ Lazarus” as prisoners around him were breaking rocks. It then leads into Harry McClintock’s pre-Depression era “Big Rock Candy Mountain”. Decades ago, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was used in classrooms as an example of folk music. But in today’s 50-plus hour work week type of economy, the dream of alcohol streams, stew-filled lakes, and “no axes, saws, or picks” seems to take on a greater deal of romantic resonance.
With the exception of “Po’ Lazarus” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, the majority of O Brother was recorded in the present. That remains one of the many miracles of the soundtrack as the recordings feel so in sound and spirit to the decades-old opening two tracks. Alison Krauss gives an angelic performance in “Down to the Rover to Pray”, backed by the First Baptist Church Choir of White House, Tennessee. Ralph Stanley gives a harrowing version of “O Death”. T Bone Burnett’s production was a near perfect mix of meticulous attention to detail as well as a regard to the need create a warm, relaxed space for all the musicians to create a beautiful landscape of Americana.
O Brother‘s influence remains strong today. Though bluegrass and folk continue to only find a home either on NPR on Sundays or on genre-specific radio programs, O Brother still gets recognized, thanks both to the timelessness of the music, and the continued cable presence of the actual film. The album may not have spawned many platinum-selling bands, but its effortless marriage of new talent and revered source material can still be heard in bands like the Black Keys, the Avett Brothers, and Lydia Loveless.
The reissue of the O Brother soundtrack wisely adheres to the principles that made the original material such a success. The producers could have played up the nostalgia factor and brought in newer talent to re-record “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” or “In the Jailhouse Now.” Instead, they wisely decided to just use several tracks that were included in the movie, but didn’t land on the soundtrack. The result is just what you would imagine a 35-minute additional disc would sound. The material is very good (especially The Kossoy Sisters’ and Erik Darling’s “I’ll Fly Away”), but falls just short of the original soundtrack’s finished product.
In order to justify a repurchase of an album reissue (aside from the obvious “my original copy is scratched to hell” reason) a great set of liner notes can do as just much as additional tracks. The liner notes in this reissue do not disappoint. The bulk of the notes come from writer/editor David Wild’s retelling of T. Bone Burnett’s anecdotes of recording O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Burnett details how the producers researched ‘30s-era recording techniques, and their attempts to duplicate them. Burnett also talks about how despite George Clooney’s efforts, the star’s singing wasn’t able to meet the authenticity requirements needed to duplicate the Depression-era source material. The decision wasn’t a knock against Clooney, it was just that to rightly recreate the needed sound, months, if not years, of studio recording and touring were needed. All of this hand-wringing was for a genre that is routinely derided by some music elitists as unrefined and simplistic.
The additional tracks and insightful liner notes put the reissue of O Brother in the “must purchase if you don’t have the original” category, but falls just short of a “must purchase” for those who already own the original. The main problem lies in the soundtrack itself. It was and remains a great, defining statement of a forgotten music era, fully justifying its Album of the Year Grammy title. Any additions just feel like an afterword. No matter how well they’re sung.